The biggest shortcoming of the V-Mate is that it records in real time, which means that if you have a 26-minute episode of Entourage, it will take 26 minutes to record. Moreover, what you see is what you get--if you pause, rewind, or change the channel while recording, that error will be dutifully recorded by the V-Mate. As noted, just like a VCR, there's an automatic recording option, and we found it pretty easy to set up and use. If you want nice, clean start and stop points on your "homemade" videos, it's best to go with the manual recording approach: hitting the record button when you want your file to start, then pressing it a second time to end recording. But you can essentially set up a season pass to shows by telling the device to record the same show daily or weekly at the same time. If your memory card fills up, the recorder will not overwrite any shows; rather, it won't record anymore.
The V-Mate's interface is pretty straightforward and elegant enough, but you'll have to consult the manual to get everything set up properly to record at the resolution you want, as well as to figure out how to upgrade the firmware (it's easy, but requires you to download a file from SanDisk's Web site). Since SanDisk is tweaking and adding new features--as well as adding new profiles for mobile phones that automatically set the correct recording format--it's important to have the latest firmware.
In fact, one can tell from the various memory card formats the V-Mate supports that the company is gearing the product more toward mobile phones and the PSP than to the iPod. Most likely because of lack of a licensing deal with Apple, SanDisk is pretty quiet about creating your videos for the iPod. While various phones and the PSP have automatic settings that are simple to switch to, to set up recording in the right format for the iPod, you have to go into the manual settings and select a very precise configuration. We accidentally hit Best quality instead of Medium, and the file we recorded wouldn't play back on our iPod. So follow the instructions carefully. Of course, because the iPod lacks a card slot, owners must transfers recorded files from a memory card to a computer, then onto the iPod through iTunes.
One nice touch that PSP owners will appreciate: The V-Mate automatically records the video file in the correct folder on your Memory Stick Duo, so long as that card was originally formatted for use with the PSP. That allows you to place the memory card directly into your PSP and play the videos without taking any further action.
Supported recording codecs on the V-Mate include MPEG-4 and H.263 (MP4, 3GP, and 3G2 file formats) at up to 640x480 resolution and 30 frames per second. The video quality at the lowest setting (15fps) was pretty mediocre, but Medium quality at 30fps is quite watchable, especially for TV shows such as The Office and The Colbert Report. There's a bit of pixelization in faster motion sequences, but all in all, the video is smooth and its sound is loud enough.
When we reviewed the Neuros Recorder 2 Plus, we complained that we'd like to see both S-Video inputs and outputs on the device, and we wouldn't mind if the box had to be slightly larger to accommodate that connectivity. (Neuros offers that connectivity on the step-up OSD). Having that superior S-Video connection will only make a very slight difference in improving picture quality when recording video (at 320x240, you'd be hard pressed to notice a difference but at 640x480 you might be able to tell), but what you see on your TV when watching through the V-Mate would be sharper. For example, when we called up our list of recorded shows, we had a hard time reading program descriptions because the print was a little fuzzy. That said, SanDisk seems to have purposely made its fonts in the V-Mate menu system extra large in order to avoid complaints from users, especially those with questionable eyesight. This was a smart move. There was one annoyance, however: we were perplexed that recordings in the highest quality couldn't be previewed via the passthrough output.
In closing, we'll say the same thing we said about the Neuros: Those who enjoy video on the go but can't stand dealing with arcane video-transcoding programs on the PC will find a lot to like in the VCR-like "just press record" simplicity of the V-Mate. On the other hand, PC-centric users who have thrown legal and ethical concerns to the wind and are adept at ripping DVDs and downloading entire TV series via Bittorrent will likely find real-time recording on the SanDisk V-Mate a little too low-tech--and tedious--for their tastes. Still, when you throw in its card reading and IR-blasting capabilities, the V-Mate starts to look fairly intriguing, especially considering it can be found online for less than $90. Despite its lack of CompactFlash support, we're rating it higher than the Neuros because it's a more feature-rich device with a better interface.